Essay

The Man and the Manners

What do Robert Frost’s letters reveal?

by Adam Plunkett
The Man and the Manners

It’s hard to shake the feeling, after reading the first volume of Robert Frost’s letters, recently published by Harvard University Press, of having come to know him somehow less than you would have after reading just the poems from those years. How could this be? Factually invaluable, the letters show much of Frost’s tortuous road from ambition to accomplishment, from newspaperman, factory worker, two-time Ivy League dropout, and middling poultryman to transatlantically acclaimed nature poet. But the more you learn about his personal life, the more it can obscure his inner life. You begin to lose him as the man becomes mannered, the private man becomes a public man, and his privacy retains its intimate vulnerability almost only in his very public poems.

Take, for example, “The Road Not Taken,” a poem written during the early excitement of his fame. Frost read it at the Phi Beta Kappa induction at Tufts in 1915, in what was likely the first of countless ingenuous ceremonial botchings of the deeply vexed and mischievous poem, only to complain to his dear friend Edward Thomas that no one had gotten the joke. The last stanza (“the sigh”) “was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing,” he wrote. “I doubt if I wasnt [sic] taken pretty seriously. Mea culpa.”

And yet even this admission, written in earnest to Frost’s closest friend, obscures as much as it reveals. Yes, the last stanza, which a century of baccalaureates have taken in good faith to celebrate the road less traveled by, also mocks the pomposity of celebrating your own distinctiveness and the pretense that the choice was really distinctive, the road really less traveled. (“The passing there / had worn them really about the same.”) But Frost was most serious at his most foolish, as he often wrote (“Perhaps you think I am joking. I am never so serious as when I am,” he wrote to his friend Sidney Cox in 1914), and the poem invites you to make the serious mistake of taking pride in your decisions the way the speaker does, without having lived the alternatives. It doubles as a cautionary note about how we respond to Frost’s fame. Having taken him as a nature poet, simple, sincere, and instinctive, we’re all the likelier to take him at his word when he says with a sigh that he has taken the road less traveled by and that it has made all the difference. But this is the public man performing himself, not the private man thinking. Perhaps one reason that Frost “passionately regretted exposing [himself],” as he told Thomas in 1915, is that he was worshipped by the public as a kind of caricature of himself. Worse, he depended on that caricature. A worshipful public gave him what he often needed most: money.

“I am become my own salesman,” Frost wrote in 1916 in an unusually revealing letter to his friend Louis Untermeyer. He was alluding to Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” his famous words about having become his reputation: “I am become a name.” Frost continues: “The calf I was in the nineties I merely take to market.” He dramatizes these anxieties in the poem that appears after “The Road Not Taken” in Mountain Interval, “Christmas Trees (A Christmas Circular Letter)” in which a man from the city visits the speaker to try to buy his Christmas trees. The speaker demurs—at first, it seems, because he saw their value noneconomically, but then because the city man hadn’t offered enough. This is “the trial by market everything must come to,” as Frost writes in the poem: the speaker pretends to be above selling his trees, only to offer his friends what amounts to a sales pitch. Frost first used the poem as a Christmas letter, which he sent in 1915, but in publishing the poem he added the lines that clinch the irony, lines that show his anxiety that he couldn’t profess to care about things besides money without selling himself as someone who cares about things besides money. [The trees were “worth more it seemed to give away than sell,” he wrote in the letter, “(I could spare one and never feel the difference)”; whereas in print he cut the latter and wrote that they were “worth three cents more to give away than sell”—three cents the recipient could, one assumes, easily part with.] Frost felt the problem acutely: “The poet in me died nearly ten years ago,” he told Untermeyer, before trying to laugh it off.

Nearly ten years before, in 1906, Frost began to teach high school English at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire. He did not quite enter public life but left the immaculately private life of farming with his wife and children, which he had led for the six years before. Scholars debate just how lazy his farming was, but his six years in Derry were clearly the most formative years of his writing, during which he developed his mature style and furnished himself with much of the material for his first two books. The years take up only two pages of the letters, and we have 14 for the next six years of teaching, in which he finished writing his first book and most of the other that would make his reputation. The letters grew in volume when Frost and his family moved to London, in 1912, on a coin flip. (There was little rhyme or reason to their choice, their alternative being British Columbia, where a former student of Frost’s lived.)

They were lucky. Frost, at 38, had been writing seriously for two decades but hadn’t been able to publish much. Once in London, he brought the manuscript of A Boy’s Will to the publisher David Nutt, who accepted it quickly. The book was reviewed far more, and far more favorably, than most books of poems, and Frost was even more successful with his second book, the very different North of Boston. (The former comprised meditative personal lyrics, the latter long rural blank-verse conversations.) By the time he was 40, Frost was a light of literary London and was no less famous in America, which he returned to in 1915 when the war had seemed to destroy Britain’s literary publishing. He spent the next two years largely on the lecture circuit before he accepted a professorship at Amherst, where he taught for three years even though he had never earned a college degree. The letters end there, with all but 35 of their 730 pages chronicling these years of his salesmanship.

You can see a bit of the young, unpolished Frost in his letters to the first person to publish his poetry, Susan Hayes Ward, who discovered him as a 20-year-old and published him in the weekly New York Independent. The boyish Frost was as extreme in his gratitude (“My thanks unlimited!”) as in his humility (“I sincerely hope I have done nothing to make you over-estimate me”) and his earnest immodesty: “Do not think this artifice or excess of modesty though, for, to betray myself utterly, such a one I am that even in my failures I find all the promise I require to justify the astonishing magnitude of my ambition.”

What’s charming in a talented youth is less so in an eminent man of letters, but his ambition required more letters the more it was realized—more favors to call in, more favor to curry. Frost asked his friends to review him, sometimes more than once. He gave reviewers neat and nearly accurate accounts of his poems, even telling them which ones to read. His early wheedling almost always moved, like his poems, from a complicated request to his anxieties about it. (“A little of the success I have waited for so long won’t hurt me. I rather think I deserve it. And I don’t want you to think I don’t deserve it. And I don’t want you to think that I have had so much of it that I wont [sic] thank you….”) That was in 1913. In 1914 he would profess his anxiety to the same person, the publisher Thomas Bird Mosher, with more manners and bragging than misgivings: “I should like to know that I had not lost favor with you at the same time that I was gaining it with really a good many important people over here.”

What openness there is in the letters is rarely revealing. Frost confided in his friend and former student John Bartlett, but his confidences took the form of lectures, on everything from theories of poetic sound—“the sound of sense,” which Frost thought could convey a wide range of emotion regardless of the meanings of words—to not writing him back. “I worry about you when I don’t get one letter from you in a month,” he wrote in 1912. His thoughtful letters to his daughter were also paternal, naturally. “What I like least is your dismissal from the court in the middle of a game you were winning,” Frost wrote to his daughter Lesley about a tennis match of hers at Wellesley, in 1917. “How do you know that it doesnt [sic] reflect on your honor in some way? The least you could have asked would have been in Cordelias [sic] words, ‘Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me,’” Frost advised, misattributing a line of Rosalind’s from As You Like It. “Love from us all, Papa.”

He seldom mentions personal stress when not taking umbrage at someone’s error about his poetry or his biography, and almost always to discuss the stressor and not its effect on his inner life. The rare exception was how he took the death of his close friend Edward Thomas, who perished in the Battle of Arras in 1917: “Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had…. I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” “Edward Thomas was even more beautiful than [his] poems.” Yet to feel that beauty and the fullness of Frost’s grief over it, you have to read past the letters, and even past Frost’s elegy “To E.T.,” to the poem that follows it in New Hampshire (1923), “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

“To E.T.” describes Frost’s sleep and a dream he wants to have while reading Thomas’s poems; the poem that follows is the dream and the dawn that breaks it. If the former reports his inner life, the latter encodes it:

So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The reason “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is more affecting than the letter-like “To E.T.” (“I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain / Unsaid between us, brother”) is that Frost could convey his private life the most precisely only when it was the least particular to him. Yet he always drew on his particular loves. This is what it meant for him to be a poet—to have a conversation at once universal and perfectly intimate. If the market, the opposite of intimate, forced him to play the poet in public life rather than to be one, we should be grateful that he remained a poet in his private life, in which no one was more constant than his wife, Elinor. There are no letters to her in this volume because he was almost always with her in those years. He mentions her at length in the letters, only to complain that people misunderstood their relationship. And in “The Silken Tent,” published right after Elinor’s death, Frost offers a figure of full intimacy, a poem that, like his love for his wife, one can hardly convey without feeling its nuances. The experience of the poem, a one-sentence sonnet, resists translation as much as anything he wrote:

Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round….

For all the complications in the poem, the syntax that sways like a silken tent in the wind, Frost frames the elegy in the first two words of the poem: “She is.”

Originally Published: February 25, 2014

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Adam Plunkett is the assistant literary editor of the New Republic.

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